MEPs show little appetite for new ‘low-fat’ labels

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A proposal to give food manufacturers more flexibility to promote their products as low in fat, sugar or salt has been a dealt blow when a parliamentary committee voted to block changes to nutritional labels. The full European Parliament is expected to consider the issue tomorrow (2 February). 

MEPs yesterday (31 January) backed a resolution opposing new labels recommended by the European Commission. The resolution will be considered by the full Parliament after gaining support from a cross-section of political groups in the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee.

The Commission has proposed amending a five-year-old regulation to add new nutritional categories that would allow food companies to claim reformulated foods have a minimum of 15% less fat, sugar or salt than earlier products, and a no-added salt label. An existing “reduced” label must have at least 30% less of an ingredient.

German centre-right MEP Renate Sommer, the parliamentary rapporteur on food labelling, accused the EU executive of trying to water down existing regulations, saying the lower threshold “would mislead consumers and producers would only have used it to boost sales".

"If we continue to rubber-stamp almost any producer claim, there will be ever-more claims and consumers will no longer be able to distinguish between foodstuffs", Sommer (European Peoples’ Party) said in a statement after the vote.

Supporters of the resolution said the new labelling rules would discourage food producers from developing recipes that have greater health benefits and fewer calories.

Salt, sugars and fats are typically key ingredients in packaged or long-life food products.

"Consumers are naturally influenced by health and nutrition claims when comparing similar products on the supermarket shelf, and we can't allow those claims to be misleading," said British MEP Glenis Willmott (Socialists and Democrats).

Health and consumer groups have in the past complained that EU policymakers and the European Food Safety Authority have been too lax in overseeing health claims on food labels.

They have also claimed the proposed Commission rules on labelling could mislead consumers to believe that foods were lower in fat, salts or sugar than they really are and that such labels don’t necessarily mean foods are appreciably healthier.

But in announcing plans to provide better labelling information on 20 June 2011, the Commission said it sought to provide more consistency across the EU and cut red tape to encourage innovation in food choices.

FoodDrinkEurope, an industry association, said in a statement it "strongly regrets" the parliamentary committee vote.

"Food operators strongly support the use of nutrition claims ‘on pack’ to ensure that consumers are informed of a specific nutritional benefit or a nutritional improvement that has been made to a recipe (often via voluntary reformulation efforts). The outcome of today’s vote, if confirmed in the EP plenary vote on 2 February, would mean consumers would not be informed of the benefits of incremental nutritional changes/improvements to products and food operators would have less possibility to communicate their reformulation efforts, presenting disincentives to invest in costly R&D and innovation techniques for the European market."

But Monique Goyens, director-general of the BEUC consumer organisation, welcomed the committee vote. "This is a highly important first step and we hope that MEPs will follow suit when they vote in plenary session on Thursday. Consumers will be the winners if Parliament prohibits this misleading claim.”

"MEPs have today taken an important stand against misleading health claims," said Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter"The Commission proposal to allow claims about reduced percentages of unhealthy components could bamboozle consumers, leading them to believe that a product is healthy even though it continues to contain considerable amounts of potentially unhealthy components (like salt, sugar or fats). This runs completely counter to the purpose and spirit of health claims and we hope the EP as a whole will support the rejection of the Commission's proposals."

Food packages often carry health or nutritional claims, such as "reduces cholesterol" or "low fat". Some of these claims can be misleading to consumers who cannot interpret scientific nutritional tables.

EU legislation on health and nutrition claims made on food, which entered into force in July 2007, introduced procedures for the substantiation of claims and restricted the use of certain types of claims.

In 2011, the EU executive proposed changes to the 2007 regulation, but it has run into opposition among MEPs - backed by consumer and health groups - claiming the changes could mislead consumers into thinking they were making healthier food choices.

  • 2 Feb. 2012: Parliament to consider resolution on food labelling.

 

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